Fifth estate, not the state

Self-regulation for newspapers ratcheted up a gear last week with the inaugural meeting of the Press Council in Johannesburg. But the African National Congress (ANC) is also notching up its own pressure on the press.

Comprising a panel of citizens and journalists, the Press Council was launched earlier this year to beef up the existing ombudsman in handling complaints about coverage. The system is a kind of fifth estate to check on the fourth.

The new body’s importance is underlined by:

  • Growing interest in owning media—like the Sunday Times—by serious politicos (potential black economic empowerment Berlusconis?). It’s déjà vu: Afrikaans press owners and editors used to be simultaneously National Party heavyweights—meaning that self-regulation there meant party control rather than the power of professional compass;

  • The Film and Publications Amendment Bill, which still threatens some publications with pre-publication censorship. This is despite no newspaper equating to the child pornographers whom President Thabo Mbeki recently claimed were “using loopholes in our media laws to commit their depraved acts”;

  • The ANC’s media-policy proposals that will go the party’s December conference.

    Predating the Sunday Times coverage of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, but given extra impetus by it, the ANC’s policy position calls for an investigation into “the adequacy or otherwise of the prevailing self-regulatory dispensation within the media”; and “the need or otherwise for a media tribunal” to address these matters.

At the Press Council’s meeting last week, the Minister in the Presidency, Essop Pahad, said ANC members were “very, very, very” concerned about media coverage. Hence, he said, they wanted an investigation into media ownership and reporting.

A different rationale for the “tribunal” was reported by the editor-in-chief of Independent Newspapers, Peter Sullivan, who had spoken with Minister of Public Service and Administration Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi. She had told him that it was in response to editors’ own demands that the New Partnership for Africa’s Development peer-review system included the media as an item for investigation.

Either way, the proposed investigation into a possible tribunal is now playing, in South Africa’s political cinema, as a bargaining chip over the role of self-regulation.

The Press Council, advised Pahad, should not simply react to complaints, but like a bloodhound proactively seek out ethical violations such as the Sunday Times‘s stories. And if editors then still did not behave “responsibly”, Pahad implied, it would be hard for the ANC’s leadership to hold back.

In effect, the message is: if the Press Council does not play effective policeman vis-à-vis the press, the state itself will do so—and unfold “a tribunal” for this purpose.

What this amounts to is wielding a sword of Damocles to make the media get their own house “in order”. The reason for such pressure is, unsurprisingly, the succession crisis.

It’s clear that the president—with good reason—saw the Sunday Times‘s exposé of his health minister as an indirect attack on him. Meanwhile, those who might otherwise have supported the story found it hard to stand up for the paper—due to the excessive language used (is a person convicted decades ago still a “thief”?), the extent of detail provided and the lack of a properly elaborated public-interest rationale.

The result today is that key political combatants can now distract attention from their own problems through exploiting the potential for media bashing. And that puts the Press Council and its ombudsman in a tight spot.

On the one hand, they have to rule on complex journalistic ethics while staunchly upholding press freedom and editorial independence. On the other hand, if they do not adequately discipline papers that offend mainly the political powerful, they risk being made irrelevant by the introduction of a “tribunal”.

But self-regulation can never have, as its core raison d’être, the purpose of appeasing ruling-party interests. Its mission has to be much higher than cat-and-mouse dodging. The system, instead, has to act in the widest public interest in ethical journalism—and against the government and particular newspapers, if need be.

In coming months, the trick facing the self-regulators will be to separate out what offends the politicians qua politicians, and what unjustifiably offends against journalism ethics. And then to distill a clear position on the areas of overlap.

Another challenge will be to communicate convincingly their impartiality from both politicians and the press. It is also imperative that the public at large is encouraged to develop a vested interest in the system of self-regulation—instead of being left as passive spectators of a distant row between politicians and press, in turn mediated by a referee that lacks profile and clout.

If the Press Council can pull it all off, the popular focus will stay on the politicians and not be diverted into sweeping generalisations about standards in “the media”. For that to happen, however, the press itself also needs to give active respect and cooperation to the system.

If the Press Council can’t achieve these things, there isn’t much else to stop the real state—under whichever ANC faction—from moving in, unimpeded, on the fourth estate.

If self-regulation fails, it will be replaced by external regulation, combined perhaps with the use of advertising as a political tool and moves on ownership. The stakes are high.


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